What Problems Can Design Thinking Solve?

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There are many types of problems in the world, but some seem almost impossible to solve.

These complex issues, known as wicked problems, often require an entirely new approach.

In this article, we’ll explore what type of problems the Design Thinking process can be effective at solving, and when the method should and shouldn’t be applied.

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What Is a Wicked Problem and Why Are They So Hard to Solve?

A wicked problem is a difficult, multifaceted issue that has no single solution or universal definition.

In the field of design thinking, wicked problems typically require complex interventions to help resolve real-world dilemmas and suggest innovative ways to address high-level challenges.

Examples of common wicked problems include:

  1. Urban pandemics
  2. Global sustainability issues
  3. Poverty
  4. Climate change
  5. Pollution
  6. Overpopulation
  7. Aging populations
  8. Social inequality
  9. Complex business decisions
  10. Product development
  11. UX design
  12. Product design
  13. Pricing strategies

Design thinking is an ideal approach for tackling these types of issues since it encourages creativity and problem-solving through both analysis and synthesis methods.

Because of their complexity, wicked problems are notoriously hard to solve. There are often competing groups with different opinions on what the most innovative solution is, significant economic restraints limiting progress, and a lack of knowledge about practical implementation paths.

Additionally, wicked problems evolve over time as more stakeholders get involved and additional information comes to light; this means that any proposed solutions must have elements of adaptability to account for changes in the problem’s scope.

This makes wicked problems particularly difficult to tackle head on and creates a unique set of challenges for designers who are recruited for their creative and analytical abilities in coming up with breakthrough solutions.

While there may be no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to wicked problems, design thinkers can embrace the challenge and create meaningful and impactful interventions that make a lasting impression on society.

With a greater focus on collaboration between stakeholders, it becomes more likely that successful outcomes will be achieved as a result of tackling wicked problems.

Ultimately, wicked problems are multifaceted design challenges that require careful consideration in how they are approached if we wish to work towards successful resolutions for these complex conundrums. ​ ​​

How Is Design Thinking Different From Other Approaches?​ ​​​​​​​​​​ ​

There are two main problem solving methodologies: Analytical and Design Thinking.

Analytical problem solving has been a cornerstone of how many of us approach solving problems for decades. It is often used to determine how system failures would occur and how to solve for them using predetermined methods.

Traditional analytical approaches often involve breaking complex problems into their component parts, conducting thorough data analysis, drawing logical conclusions, and then finding the best solution.

The Design Thinking process, however, takes a different approach. It is more creative in nature and involves looking at the problem holistically before focusing on any specific aspect or detail.

This provides an opportunity to think outside of the box and come up with creative solutions to previously unsolvable or ‘wicked’ problems.

Design thinking encourages iteration and collaboration from multidisciplinary teams which are critical components when performing complex innovation projects.

This design process follows an open-minded path that allows the design thinker to explore different ideas while leveraging new forms of data that before may have gone unnoticed within the analytical silos.

The main difference between Design Thinking and traditional analytical approaches is that Design Thinking focuses on uncovering user needs over predicting outcomes from theoretical strategies.

This ultimately leads to improved strategy formation through divergence and synthesis methods, creating opportunities for breakthroughs in how we understand complex challenges today.

The key difference between these two approaches comes down to understanding how different groups of users perceive their world differently from each other; something that traditional analytical approaches fail to account for adequately when trying to solve deep-seated problems or create revolutionary products or services on the market today.

In conclusion, while both design thinking and traditional analytical approaches have benefits when looking at how best to tackle challenging issues, it’s important that each problem is approached suitably based on what kind of outcome you wish to achieve: one excels in providing logical strategies while the other focuses more deeply on developing innovative solutions based off of user empathy and understanding needs first before trying to develop tangible solutions.

Ultimately this means that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when choosing your approach – you have to take into consideration what kind of problem you are attempting to solve as well as how your potential user base interacts with it in order to make informed decisions utilizing each type of methodology appropriately.

Knowing when each approach should be adopted can greatly increase our ability for effective problem solving if done correctly!

When Design Thinking Is Most Effective

The Design thinking process is a problem-solving approach that places people at the core, which is useful when looking to solve complex problems that involve the varied and changing needs, behaviors, and expectations of humans.

It has become increasingly popular for tackling open-ended goals when conventional strategies may not be sufficient.

It works best when applied to solving problems that involve deeply understanding people and their environment, such as when designing products or services for human use.

Design Thinking helps us to build a knowledge base of human needs, insights, and behaviors with which we can design and validate radical solutions. This makes Design Thinking the perfect way to start a design project – during the discovery phase, as a research project – before development has begun.

Design thinking has been found to be particularly effective when seeking out innovative solutions to challenging issues like those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic – where creativity and forethought are necessary for finding the most viable response.

When used correctly, it can greatly accelerate user-centered decision making processes, requiring less time and resources while yielding a result closer to what people actually need and expect.

In short, design thinking is an invaluable problem-solving technique when navigating complicated scenarios that involve humans in some capacity.

Armed with a versatile innovation process fueled by empathy and creativity, it allows us to unearth meaningful insights about our users on the path to uncovering effective solutions.

With design thinking at its core, consumer needs remain front and center when deciding how to tackle modern problems.

As a result, design thinking has become one of the most powerful problem solving tools today’s professionals have access to during times of uncertainty when speed can mean success or failure.

When Not to Use Design Thinking

Design thinking is an innovative tool for problem solving when applied in the right circumstances.

However, it is not a silver bullet for all types of problems.

If time and resources are tight, the problem is well defined and you already know a lot about the end user and customer experience. Design Thinking might not be the best tool for the job. It all depends on your individual requirements.

If you are looking to develop something new and creative then design thinking could be suitable, while if you need a purely technical solution then an analytical approach could be preferable.

The Design Thinking method encourages creativity and experimentation with solutions when tackling a particular challenge, rather than undertaking a systematic process of analysis often adopted by engineers and software developers.

Furthermore, when it comes to creating digital products, design thinking isn’t necessarily designed for iterative or continuous improvement of existing digital products. In this instance, a tool like the Design Sprint could be a more effective approach.

Ultimately when deciding whether design thinking or an analytical approach is better suited to your problem solving needs, consider the type of problem you’re attempting to solve.

Design Thinking Explained With an Example

Below is an example of a case study from Design Thinking consultancy, IDEO.

But before reviewing the case study, let’s consider why it’s a good example.

This is an exceptional example of Design Thinking for a few reasons:

  1. It involves the communities experiencing the problem
  2. It observes the behavior and context of the people experiencing the problem
  3. A diverse group of people generates lots of new ideas from different perspectives
  4. It includes relevant authorities to help choose the best possible solution
  5. It takes into account the needs of various stakeholder groups
  6. It’s a custom approach based on Design Thinking to a unique problem
  7. It’s highly collaborative and involves multidisciplinary teams
  8. And most of all, its a human centered design process every step of the way

Design Thinking Project Example
Designing Waste Out of the Food System
IDEO partnered with hotels, food banks, foundations, and entrepreneurs to combat food waste. The challenge was to help reduce the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year and equip food industry players with the design principles and support to cut waste further. The outcome was an array of innovations to help individuals, businesses, and governments reduce food waste.
The team at IDEO used a participatory design method and partnered with a variety of related food waste and environment organizations. These organizations each represent different aspects of the issue to be solved and bring their own unique perspectives and experience to the table.

Together they launched an Open Innovation Practice that invited people from all over the world to track their personal waste and brainstorm solutions to reduce it. Over 20,000 people from 113 countries took part in the challenge. Participants submitted more than 450 ideas and a team of food industry experts selected the top 12 proposals.
One idea was to create software that allows communities to collectively purchase food directly from wholesalers and a service that takes excess meals from corporate events to people in need.

A $50,000 grant was given to a scale-up that has a creative solution that converts inedible food and paper waste into a compostable alternative to oil-based plastic.
The initiative brought communities together, inspired them, and armed them with the tools they need to reduce their waste more consciously as individuals.

And, the initiative helped to secure funding for a range of start-ups that are experimenting in the area of food waste reduction and sustainability.

Why We Need Design Thinking

We need Design Thinking to shape our future without forgetting our humanity.

Design thinking is quickly gaining ground as a preferred approach for tackling problems that have their roots in more complicated matters of human behavior.

Unlike traditional analytical thinking methods, which break down complex problems into smaller parts, design thinking puts the focus on understanding users and their needs first.

By approaching problem solving through empathy and seeing user experience as an important factor, it allows creative teams to design solutions that are tailored to the user’s needs.

This makes it an effective approach when dealing with issues related to emotion, psychology, relationships, and other forms of human behavior.

Ultimately, this approach serves as an effective and more responsible way to tackle real-world human issues than traditional analytical methods.

How to Use Design Thinking to Solve Problems

The Design Thinking methodology is based on the idea that solutions should be produced from an iterative, human-centered perspective in order to allow for experimentation and innovation.

Stanford University defines Design Thinking as having five main stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Through these phases, design thinkers are able to gain a better understanding of their target audience, write actionable problem statements, and develop a potential solution that caters to the needs of this group.

They also strive to remain mindful of the Design Thinking principle that drives successful implementations – collaboration and learning from failure.

To get started applying the Design Thinking approach to your own problems, check out these related articles and resources:


Wicked problems are complex, multi-dimensional issues that can be difficult to define or solve. Design thinking offers a comprehensive and user-centered approach to tackling these types of problems.

By prioritizing human needs, collaboration, and an iterative approach to learning, design thinking encourages out-of-the-box solutions that can lead to more effective results.

When approaching any problem, it’s important to first assess which type of approach will offer the most helpful solution given the specific situation.

With wicked problems becoming increasingly prevalent in our rapidly changing world, design thinkers will continue to play an essential role in finding innovative ideas to address them.

Think about a time when you had to solve a difficult problem. Did you use analytical or design thinking? What was the outcome? Have you found it effective?

We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!

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Jack O'Donoghue Avatar